by Rev. Moss Ntlha (TEASA Gen. Secr.), FOR SA Leadership team
The Church has a lot of work to do. The times are desperate.
The primary mission before us is to restate the case of the Son of God coming into the world to save sinners. This is more urgent than ever, especially now as we enter the Christmas period. Our materialistic culture has been largely successful in hijacking the message of Christmas and recasting it as a message of heightened consumerism. Retailers are gearing up to make a killing. Liquor outlets are preparing for record sales as they set up to be fully represented at the tables of merriment. Children could be forgiven for thinking that Christmas is much like their birthday, where new toys and new clothes will be bought. The older the “children”, the more expensive the gifts that will be bought. The enemy, it appears, is good at finding decoys to draw our attention away from the main agenda of the Church, which is to announce the good news of Jesus Christ to all humanity.
More recently, our attention has been drawn to the doom, rat, grass eating and petrol drinking preachers who, in effect, are putting people off from the church. Many are beginning to think, “You are much better staying away from organised church life and finding your own spiritual path to God.” Thanks to the abuses of these preachers of doom, the Church is scoring own goals. These “wolves in sheep’s clothing” distort the Christian message from within the boundaries of the Church, hiding behind the cover of our Constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion. As matters stand, they see themselves to be untouchable as they ply their trade of dazzling their followers with strange teachings and the working of “miracles”.
It is not the darkness in the world that is our greatest threat. The Church was designed to tackle that. We stand ready to storm the heart of darkness with the assurance that “the gates of hell will not prevail against us.” It is the emergence of this “Third force” from within the Church that poses a real threat and highlights the fact that our backyard needs attention.
In and of itself, the “Doom Pastor” phenomenon is the silly attention seeking adolescent behaviour of some new kids on the ecclesiastical block. It could be ignored in the hope that it is a passing phase, and as soon as these pastors know a wee bit more that they do now, they will wonder what in Heaven’s name they were thinking when they did what they are doing. And so will their followers. But the price being paid is too high, because it is the very poor for whom Christ came into the world to proclaim Good News, who are being led further astray into bondage and darkness.
So what is to be done?
It would be very sad if the Church’s only response to the “Doom Pastors” and associated challenges is self-preservation, seeking to make sure the CRL Rights Commission does nothing to “regulate” us. Indeed, there is a good case for being wary of any attempt by the State to dictate the boundaries of Christian belief and practice. History has shown time and again that they will not know where to stop, with some of the worst abuses of power manifesting when the Church and State combine forces. So we will indeed need to deploy some of our best legal minds to identify legal solutions to curb these abuses, while at the same time protecting the Constitutional right that guarantees that the Church remains free to continue to teach and preach everything that Jesus taught us.
That having been said, a proper response should include three other ways of engagement.
Firstly, to apply our collective minds to the problem of what is to be done to rescue the flock from charlatans like Lethebo Rabalago. To say there is nothing that can done, is to be a lazy shepherd who sees a pack of hyenas slaughtering his sheep and does nothing to protect them. David stopped a lion from killing his father’s sheep. Real shepherds do that. They go on a rescue mission. If there is a will, there normally is a way.
Nelson Mandela once said, in acknowledging the tremendous role in the struggle for justice played by the Regina Mundi Catholic church in Soweto: “As long as we see the problems and challenges that face us as our own, and not those for someone else – as long as we work together to make South Africa the land of our dreams – so long shall we be guaranteed of success.”
Addressing himself to our Constitutional freedom, he continued to say: “The freedom which we won with the active participation of the religious community, indeed the majority of South Africans, has given us a Constitution which guarantees to all South Africans their religious freedom. With this and other fundamental rights secured, the churches and other religious organisations, like society at large, are faced with what is in reality, an even greater challenge: to bring about social transformation through the reconstruction and development of our country.”
Secondly, we have been less than clear in making the Christian Gospel understandable to the masses. Put another way, we have not discipled the nation as Jesus commanded us in the Great Commission. The masses simply do not know what Jesus taught. It is of little use to say “In our church, that sort of thing would never happen”. The masses do not come to your church. Jesus thought you would go to them.
Thirdly, when the BBC, CNN and other world media (not to mention our own local media) report Lethebo Rabalago as news – not in the jokes section – we inevitably suffer severe reputational damage. This is a massive problem which no organisation that exists to serve communities with good news can afford to ignore. Truth in the end will prevail, but in the meantime we would do well to take John Wesley‘s approach that the world, not our local churches, is our parish. We must pray and serve with the world in view, not just our local church. It is time to demonstrate utmost integrity and ecumenical accountability in the way we do ministry.
We have a burden to be true to our calling as the light of the world. Our greatest challenge is to prove that we are up to this task, because the world is being given too many reasons to think that we are not. Yet despite the difficulties, let us take the challenges and issues that are being highlighted and use them as a catalyst to spur us on to good works, so that we regain the trust and respect of a society that – lest we forget – has a deep Christian heritage as its foundation.